Recently I ran into a friend and fellow believer.  He was recounting for me an exchange that he’d had in a philosophy class.  He and his classmates were discussing whether or not there were actual moral truths.  To those that believed that, which was most of the class, agreed that things like murder, adultery, and rape were objectively wrong.  The discussion then became how we know what is wrong is actually wrong.  To this, my friend raised his Bible.  Then the professor raised a question: given that what God commands is morally good, is it morally good because He commands it, or does He command it because it is morally good?

The argument goes something like this: let’s say that God gives a new modern-day revelation.  He comes down and tells His people “I like what you guys are doing, but I have a few changes I want you to make.  I want you to execute the third child of every family, just ’cause.  Then I need you to rape someone about once a year.  Oh, and blacks can’t be Christians anymore.  We have to kick those people out.”  Would arbitrary murder, rape, and racism then become morally good?

Our instinct reaction is to say “Well of course not!  And God would never command those things, because He’s good!”  I agree.  But for many people, most of all for unbelievers, it’s just not that simple.  You see, if you make that claim, that’s the same as saying that truth exists independent of God.  Something is good not because God commanded it, but because it’s good independent of Him.  He just commands it because it’s good.  So then, one could argue, God may still be good, but He is no longer the source of truth, only the propagator of it.  If we don’t like that conclusion, then the alternative is that something is good simply because God commands it, which to some extent makes truth relative, rendering any argument to the aforementioned scenario moot.  See the dilemma?

This is a discussion that is known in philosophy as the Euthyphro dilemma, in which Plato asked the same question in different terms, essentially using the word “pious” instead of “good.”  It’s a question that religious philosophers have grappled with for centuries, and one that skeptics love to issue as reason that the Judeo-Christian God is simply illogical.  After all, if your options are either that God is bound by a moral code, or that God’s morality is arbitrary, neither of those options seem to mesh with Scripture.  But I propose a third option: that we don’t even understand what we’re saying when we use the word “good.”

Our assumption when describing this dilemma is that what is morally good is defined by our consciences and what we understand to be morally good and right.  And if, at any point, something acts contrary to that, and we understand that these things are morally wrong, then we may attribute that to an eternal measure of objective right and wrong.  So why, I ask, can’t that be God Himself?

In other words, why do we think that an objective (as compared to arbitrary) measure of what is right and wrong cannot come from God Himself?  Let’s use another example: God is love.  We know that from 1 John 4:8.  Now does the traditional Christian understanding of this passage posit that God is bound by the eternal objective virtue of love or that He arbitrarily assigns what his invention of love will be defined as?  You’re probably looking at the screen with a bit of a disgusted expression about now, and you’d be right to – because we understand that either of those explanations are not even relatively close to what the passage is saying.  Rather, the passage is saying that God embodies love, that the loving part of Him is how we understand what love is.  Love is not something that exists separate from God, but rather love is an attribute of God,  and therefore God is that thing.

It’s the same thing when it comes to moral goodness.  God does not propagate good nor does He arbitrarily assign a definition to it, but rather moral good is a description of the character of God.  Therefore, when we say something is good, we are ultimately saying that it matches the character of God.  So when Psalm 136:1 says “Give thanks to Jehovah, for He is good,” it is not simply saying that He abides by this moral standard that you have, in your manifold wisdom, identified about the world, but it is saying that in all that you can see that is good in the world, everything that you identify as positive, as what is right, that and so much more is God.  He is the source of all of that.  So then, what He commands is not good because goodness exists apart from God or because goodness is arbitrary, but because God is goodness, and God is virtue, and his commandments are expressions of Himself, and His desire to make us like Him.

26 COMMENTS

    • Hm. Hard to tell if you’re being serious or facetious, chicagoja. Are you suggesting that an individual’s (or people’s) death has greater moral significance than their being good?

      • I’m simply asking if moral good is a reflection of God, then how does one process the Flood story, as well as other Old Testament verses of God killing people?

        • That’s why I asked what I asked. If we attribute greater worth to an individual’s life then there should be no reason why God would have caused the flood in the first place. If there are other moral goods greater than an individual’s life, like being good, then the flood may be justified under certain circumstances. I believe the latter. So when Scripture says that “the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5), I see that being good supersedes having life. This is why there is such a thing as capital punishment. The question then is: How do we know what is good? I think Logan answered that pretty well in his post. Goodness is a reflection of God’s character. If we are not doing good then we are doing something against His character.

          • I’m with you on that. However, if moral good is a reflection of God and we can say that God’s killing innocent people is justified, then isn’t that how religions also justify the morality behind wars in God’s name (e.g. Moslems killing the infidels)?

          • First, what is your definition of innocent here? If we take Scripture as truth, then the people of Noah’s day were not innocent.

            My response to your example would be to say that yes, that is how religions justify killing. I would not deny that, but I would, however, point out that the Bible does not command Christians to kill. So if you have an ethical concern with religiously justified killings, that is not with orthodox Christianity.

            In order to address the broader implications of your question (doesn’t this mean that religion can justify killing), I would say that troubling implications don’t necessarily have a bearing on whether or not something is true. What then becomes the issue is determining which religion is true, and ethical considerations and judgments of morality flow from that.

          • Closer. I’ll try again. Moral values are traced to attributes of God. i believe that’s what you said. Since it’s okay for God to kill, under certain circumstances, then it’s also okay for man to kill under certain circumstances. Would you agree?

          • I would not say that we are permitted to do everything God does, no. God has a position of authority, if you will, that we do not have. So there could, hypothetically, be some instances in which man is permitted to kill, but it would not necessarily follow from the fact that God sometimes kills.

          • I agree, as far as that goes. Here where it gets a bit murky. The human race has rationalized its holy wars in the name of God by saying that its morally okay. How is that possible?

          • I can’t speak for anyone, as far as what they would use for justification, but as it relates to the Bible and the Judeo-Christian God, I would probably say that they have either misunderstood or misused Scripture. For example, Romans 12:19 explicitly says not to take vengeance. So just because people have rationalized something a certain way doesn’t mean that doing so is consistent with the text they are citing.

          • True, but people read the Scriptures and set their moral compass based on their idea about God. Then they rationalize their behavior accordingly. When you have a God who says: Do as I say, not as I do – that’s a problem. Bottom line – even religious people are able to rationalize that it’s okay to take another human life.

          • “People read the Scriptures and set their moral compass based on their idea about God.” No disagreements there!

            “When you have a God that says, ‘Do as I say, not as I do’ – that’s a problem.” When did God say that?

            You left out the “certain circumstances” that you mentioned in your previous comment that allows for the killing of people. So let’s try to be precise with our words here so this concept we’re talking about doesn’t stray into an intellectual ditch. If we’re talking about the killing of certain guilty people under certain conditions then, yes, humanity has been given permission by God to kill them. That’s why I referenced capital punishment. I understand a number of people are against capital punishment and I understand the rationale they give. But that’s why I asked you what you think has more moral value, an individual’s life or being good.

          • I already see a misstep here. You said “God’s killing innocent people…” In my previous comment I quoted Scripture stating that they were not innocent. So, in the flood, God did not kill innocent people. Perhaps you can assume they were innocent people but, if you accept the fact that there was a flood then you should probably accept the rationale as to why it happened, since both come from Scripture.

          • The do as I say is a reference to the Ten Commandments. So God says do not kill, but he kills himself; therefore, do as I say but not as I do. As a parent, myself, I know that it’s very bad to raise a child that way. My point was that our moral values (based on Scripture) allows for the taking of life if the victim is not innocent. Since that’s a very subjective term, you wind up with holy wars because people have claimed that their victims are not innocent. History is full of such things. Sure, Scripture says that they were not innocent but Scripture also says that God created man and saw that it was good. Then he repented when he realized that they were not good. Under the circumstances, there is no way to claim that God is omniscient. If he were omniscient, he would have realized that although they were good when he created them, they would ultimately prove to be otherwise. Further, being omniscient, he therefore would not have created man in the first place.

          • Actually, the word is Ratsakh in Hebrew and Phoneuo in the Greek. So the commandment in the Old Testament is “Do not murder” (Thanks a lot King James Version for muddying that one up!). Murder is the unjustified taking of another person’s life. Killing, on the other hand, can be the justified taking of another person’s life. That’s why, in other Old Testament commandments, God allowed for the taking of another person’s life under certain conditions. So I don’t see the double standard you do in that verse.

            I am also a parent and I’m sure you would agree that your child, especially at the formative stages, should not be allowed to do everything that you do. There is no bothersome double standard in that sense because parents (and adults in general) have a greater awareness and appreciation of certain things that a child does not. So even if God has the privilege or capacity to do certain things that I cannot, I’m not immediately bothered by that.
            You’re absolutely right, religious people have and still do subjectively interpret verses of their religious texts. That doesn’t mean there is no objective notion to grasp out of those verses. That just means the religious individual has some work to do to ensure their ideas match up with what is actually going on.

            You say God created man and saw that it was good but then didn’t mention the part where evil was introduced into the garden and thus changed the “good” dynamic that God was referring to. Again, let’s try to be careful with our characterizations lest we end up describing something that Scripture is not saying.

            If I’m understanding you, you’re saying God cannot be omniscient and your assumption is that if He were then He would have known that His creation would have taken that turn in the garden. I don’t think appealing to that proves what you want it to. I say God did know and He created anyway. And He may have a “good” reason, on balance, for that about which you don’t know. It seems quite a burdensome statement to say, “If God were omniscient He would not have created.” I’d be interested to hear the case you would make to support that assertion.

          • The topic that I originally responded to had to do with where morality comes from. I was simply making the observation that while Scripture is a good choice in most cases, human nature being what it is people start wars and use Scriptures as an excuse (that’s why they call them holy wars). As for evil, it obviously was created by God unless one believes the nonsense that is the “creation out of nothing” notion. There was no way for God to have been omniscient because being omniscient he would have known everything in advance (i.e. he had unlimited knowledge and perceived all things). Being omniscient, he definitely could never have repented. He absolutely would have known – in advance. No repentance is possible for an omniscient being. As for the case of why God was not omniscient, the God of Genesis was not truly the First Cause. I’d give you the details, but what would be the point?

          • chicagoja, there are a lot of assumptions embedded in your claims. I’m kind of like the mosquito at the nudist colony; I don’t know where to begin. 😉

            I don’t know how evil is “obviously” created by God since evil is not an object and, therefore, cannot be created. Evil has no ontological status; it has no being. It’s like a shadow. A shadow is simply where the light is not. That’s evil. Evil is where goodness is not. So to say that God “created” evil is simply false.

            “Being omniscient [God] definitely could never have repented.” Yes! You got it right! God does not repent. That’s why it’s important to understand the original language and the problems that arise from translating into other languages (like English). The thing to remember is the word is clearly ascribing an anthropopathism to God because God is not a human being. So even if He felt emotions (which I think He does) He’s not going to feel or experience them the way we would, since He’s not human. That’s why Numbers 23:19 says that God is not a man that He should repent. If we take the Bible seriously then its characterization that humans only have an image of God and nothing more should tell us that we are quite different from Him. Even for me to use the pronoun “He” to describe God is anthropomorphizing Him in a manner that helps me to speak about God but also doesn’t fully capture who or what I’m really talking about.

            Nevertheless Scripture clearly wants to communicate that, despite those differences, our Creator wants to relate with us. That’s why Jesus describes Him as a Father. But since He’s not a human then, when we try to understand who He is, the only way we can do it is using concepts that are at our level of understanding. The Hebrew word nacham describing God is translated “repent” but the thrust of the word is simply characterizing the dual aspects of decision and emotion. The spectrum of meaning for nacham runs from “relent,” all the way to “grieved”. It just depends on which particular rendering of nachamis used with which particular verb stem.

            So that’s a long way of saying that Scripture attests to the fact that God does not repent yet uses a word that indicates that he did something with regard to the passages in Genesis and 1 Samuel. It certainly is possible for someone who already knew the future to be “grieved” over an inevitable outcome. Now, if you want to take a critical approach to translation, perhaps you’ll thumb your nose and say this must be a contradiction. But I don’t see a necessary contradiction, just a range of meaning from the original Hebrew and clear indications that God is not human. Thus we are grasping at understanding a non-human in human terms. I’m fine with the ambiguity in Genesis and 1 Samuel since there are other areas of Scripture that relay God’s characteristics and are much more clear.

            As for your last statement: If you don’t see the point, then I don’t either.

          • The point is really quite simple. Morality from the Scriptures is a two-edge sword. People historically have used the Scriptures to control and manipulate others and that’s how we got holy wars. You must agree with that point because you haven’t yet disagreed with that point yet and I’ve made the point several times. The point is that God is not omniscient because God made man and saw that it was good, but later had a change of mind and wiped him off the face of the earth (almost). Again, you didn’t disagree, other than your long explanation of the translation of the word repent, so I assume that you concur. That said, God can not be omniscient. The point is that you believe in goodness as a real thing but evil is not. That’s twisted logic for sure. We have a world where evil exists (bad things happen to good people) and no matter how you pontificate about it, God has to be the cause, especially if you believe him to be omniscient. God could have made goodness to be everywhere, for everything to be perfect, but he didn’t. God created everything – you, me, goodness and lack of goodness (evil). As for the Scriptures attesting to any of your arguments (as you claim), that’s just so much circular reasoning as all of your arguments presumably come from the Scriptures. I’d love to debate with you further, but I detest dealing with people with closed minds. It’s kind of pointless…and that’s the point.

          • Chicagoja, one of the biggest problems in this conversation that I have perceived is that you assume way too much; and those assumptions have been almost entirely wrongheaded. I know you think the point is simple but the issues we’ve been discussing are not simple. God, morality, and evil are deep and complex issues. No offense but throwing your hands up and crying foul (and calling me close-minded) because they are deep and complex is a huge mistake; and I would challenge you, and each and everyone of us, not to do that. There are coherent answers to all of these questions. We might not like some of them, but not liking them (or mistakenly thinking they are contradictory) doesn’t make them false. We are all going to have to do a lot more work than that.

  1. My belief is that if a Man kills a man – he can not restore that life. If God kills the man – he can restore that life. So in the lens of God killing through a flood just means for this temporal life. In the next – spiritual life – God can restore that life. However, if Isis kill Christians or the other way around – for moral (they’re own perspective) reasons, the cannot restore that life.

    • It’s true that God can restore life, but we must also be honest about whether or not He will. God can do what He wants, but we’re told that He sent the flood because the people were wicked, so I don’t think it’s likely that God will save those He punished through the flood. You are right, however, in that God has the ability to restore life and we do not.

    • There’s no question on God’s ability to restore life. But the real issue lies not on the question “can God restore?” but “will God restore?”

  2. […] Did creating the presence of that choice create sin?  No, it did not.  Scripture is clear on this: “What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’” (Romans 7:7).  Herein lies a fascinating idea: God did not create sin by creating arbitrary rules.  The laws of morality exist independent of our knowledge of them or being told of them.  God tells us what is good, because goodness is an expression of His character, not an arbitrary set of rules (for more on the question of “Are God’s laws arbitrary” see this post). […]

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